Praising God in a Multi-Language Congregation

I received this suggestion for a WorshipGod09 seminar from Mike:

I am on the leadership team of a new church here in Harare, Zimbabwe. We have combined two congregations – one of which used to worship in Shona and the other which is more comfortable in English.  In the new combined congregation, we have some who are mono-lingual. How do I agree with a spontaneous prayer if I do not know if they are praising His glory, interceding for the nation, or praying for Maria’s sore toe? Many of us, even if mono-lingual in speech, can sing in three or four languages!  But how meaningfully? We are considering having bi-lingual projections on screen for this purpose.  But will need some seriously “together” operators when spontaneous worship occurs! 

Rather than build a workshop around that idea, I thought I’d share a few thoughts here and invite comments from those of you who have experience serving multi-language groups.

When Paul is talking about the gathered church in 1 Corinthians 14:9-12, he stresses the importance of everyone understanding what’s going on. Although he’s talking about the gift of tongues in this passage, the principle can certainly be applied to normal languages. The question is, how do we make sure everyone understands what’s being said?

One option is wireless headphones for translation. That’s what we did for our Hispanic guests and members until a few months ago when we finally started a Hispanic congregation. 

If there are a large number of people who speak one of two languages, another option is to have two people up front who translate everything that’s being spoken. That obviously limits spontaneous contributions in their number and speed, but everyone at least can keep up with what’s happening.

Another approach is to sing songs in two languages at the same time, projecting both versions simultaneously. To allow for this possibility, we’re currently working on Spanish translations of Sovereign Grace songs that not only communicate the original content, but are also close to the original melody. A challenging task, since it usually takes 30% more words to say something in Spanish…

None of this means that someone can’t be meaningfully blessed when listening to someone speak in a foreign language. Years ago I attended a conference and heard a gentleman from China pray in Chinese for his country. I was moved to tears by his obvious passion for the people of his nation, even though I couldn’t understand a word he was saying. That being said, a constant diet of prayers that I couldn’t understand wouldn’t help me. God intends for us to understand what others are saying.

One thing we should avoid is restricting ourselves to the simplest of songs to make translation easier. Content doesn’t have to be sacrificed for unity. We are still commanded to “let the word of Christ” dwell in us richly (Col. 3:16). God’s greatness, the glories of the gospel, and the variety of appropriate responses require thoughts and expressions that at times will stretch us lyrically. And that’s a good thing.

Recently, a friend made me aware of Proskuneo Ministries, led by Josh Davis, that focuses on designing and encouraging meetings that are multi-lingual. This is their mission statement:

We exist to glorify GOD and promote unity in the Body of Christ through multilingual, multicultural worship gatherings, worship resources, and training of believers in order that lives be transformed and nations come together to worship God.

Multi-language congregational worship isn’t applicable to every situation, but ministries like Proskuneo help us appreciate more clearly what every believer in Jesus Christ is headed for:

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev. 7:9-10)

Whether in one language or many, may our churches increasingly reflect the unity, joy, power, and focus of that day.

16 Responses to Praising God in a Multi-Language Congregation

  1. Brian Bailey March 12, 2009 at 6:51 PM #

    Josh Davis of Proskuneo Ministries is speaking at my school tomorrow (Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary).

  2. Josue March 12, 2009 at 11:13 PM #

    In singing I think the best is to sing the song in both languages and project simultaneously as Bob mention, we have done it in our church with Spanish/english. It takes some time to people to get used to it, but the heavenly worship of “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” it is amazing.

    By the way Bob i have some translation for a lot song from english to Spanish…And if you need any help with the Sovereign grace music translation let me know…jv

  3. Andy March 13, 2009 at 1:14 AM #

    Bob,

    Appreciate mentioning of the topic and of your well-expressed thoughts.

    I grew up in a multi-lingual Chinese church (Chinese Bible Church of MD, down the road from Covenant Life), where we always had three languages– English + 2 dialects of Chinese. Presently I also serve in a tri-lingual Chinese church.

    My fiance is a member of the Cantonese praise team, and sometimes it is so cool seeing how nuances of meaning and words are enhanced through translating into a different language. Sometimes I realize just how imprecise English can be!

    Here at our church, we normally have separate language services. A few times a year, we have combined service, where we typically project the lyrics in both languages. The worship leader will alternate between someone from the English or the Chinese congregation, and thus will “lead” in their native tongue. Usually songs are chosen that everyone will be familiar with, regardless of language (i.e. hymns, oft-repeated contemporary songs).

    We try to be sensitive to each group’s language needs. One further thought on that regard: like how Paul says that the parts of the body that seem insignificant deserve greater honor, it is easy for the “majority” language at times to forget that they need to see the other language(s) as equal in the worshipping of God. In the early growth stages of many Chinese churches, American-born English speaking members felt alienated because everything was bent towards the Chinese-speaking, and the English speaking felt like second class citizens. Always remember to treat everyone as equals– because before God, we are. Even at times, give greater honor to the minority who speak a different language, and use the opportunity to point to the great diversity that reflects God in just a slightly different way.

    If interested, our Chinese choir director, Andrew, is an excellent translator of worship songs from English into Chinese. He’s great at communicating the truth of the lyrics in a “dynamic equivalence” form that captures the meaning and significance, not just the verbatim content. He came to WorshipGod08 with me and will also plan to come this year too. If Sovereign Grace might be interested, I think Andrew would be more than happy to help translate some songs into Chinese.

  4. Sergio Villanueva March 13, 2009 at 1:36 AM #

    I’m the worship leader of an hispanic congregation (www.iglesiadelpueblo.net) and we are part of an english speaking congregation (www.wheatonbible.org) near Chicago.

    Although our service is only in spanish, we have had combined services in the past and during worship we have try singing simultaneously and it has been a great experience. It’s like a little foretaste of how I think is going to be in heaven “People from every tongue and race… worshiping the Lamb” Try it!

    ps. Bob, I have several translations/adaptations of Sovereign Grace songs that I would be glad to submit for your consideration. We already use the versions of “Sea la gloria solo a Ti” But right now I’m working on the songs from “Psalms” and “Come weary saints”.
    We strive not only to “translate” but to adapt the theology, poetry and feeling of the song into our language

  5. Jakes Olivier March 13, 2009 at 7:36 AM #

    Hi Bob and Mike

    Jakes here from Empangeni, KZN, South Africa and i’d like to add some thoughts to this.

    Just so you know where i’m coming from: I’m one of the worship leaders in our church, which is a multi-cultural one (English, Zulu and Afrikans) and where God has been opening up doors for us to be used in and around our nation, and even into Zimbabwe in the area of multi-cultural worship.

    We are also in the process of recording a multi-cultural CD which we aim to distribute freel to those who would like a copy. I’d be happy to send one to you when it’s done in about 3 months time or so. Just send me your postal address and i’ll have one sent to you.

    Just over a year ago, a Zulu church in a nearby community combined with ours, and this meant that about 60 Zulu speaking people would be joining us for worship on Sundays, would be connecting into our Homegroups, into our worship teams, into our leadership team eventually and so some things had to change. :)

    We started learning some more Zulu songs and started integrating their musicians and worship leaders into our teams (after some time tho and not immediately – we had to build friendships, commitment, fellowship etc. with each other first.)

    Some things we had to change at our Sunday meetings:

    1.) We had to start to translate everything, from the announcements, the sermons to some of the worship. Most of the Zulu speaking people were familiar with some of the English songs we sang (which was great) but there were some they had to learn, just like we had to learn some Zulu songs.

    We had a small team of ‘translators’ who would take turns each Sunday to translate the meeting. It’s important that you find the right person to translate: this person must not merely be an echo for the person speaking. He must catch your heart and what you are sharing to effectively get this message across to the listeners. (perhaps you know this already?)

    2.) For some of our English songs, we included the Zulu translation on the overhead projection. We currently use EasyWorship which works pretty well but there are some FREE basic programs available like OpenSong for example.

    So in between the English words we would put a very basic Zulu translation, something like this:

    Hallelujah Dumolwakhe
    (Hallelujah Thine the glory)
    Hallelujah Amen
    Hallelujah Dumolwakhe
    Sivuselele
    (Revive us)

    And we would obviously do the same for the Zulu songs so that everyone pretty much knew what they were singing! :)

    3.) An idea for the translation is as Bob said a wireless transmitter and headsets but in Africa, this can work out to be quite expensive. We are currently experimenting by using two-way radios. If you’d like to know more, contact me.

    The key for us has been “interpret as much as you can without distracting from what GOD is doing”. Sometimes things will happen that are spontaneous, that’s sort of what we want hey? but then there are times GOD is speaking clearly – this needs to be communicated with the congregation.

    1 Corinthians 14:26-40.

    1 Corinthians 14:33
    “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace.”

    I hope this helps you in some way….

    Regards
    Jakes

  6. Brian Barker March 14, 2009 at 6:47 AM #

    Apparently President Obama wants everyone to learn a foreign language, but which one should it be?

    The British learn French, the Australians study Japanese, and the Americans prefer Spanish. Yet this leaves Mandarin Chinese, Russian and Arabic, out of the equation.

    Is it time to adopt a neutral, non-national language, taught universally in schools worldwide,in all nations?

    An interesting video can be seen at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_LV9XU

    Detail can be seen at http://www.lernu.net

    • Bob Kauflin March 14, 2009 at 11:19 AM #

      Brian, thanks for stopping by. Esperanto is an interesting concept. Unfortunately, some churches can’t wait until everyone learns a new language before they gather together to worship God! BTW, the YouTube link isn’t working.

  7. Jim Pemberton March 18, 2009 at 3:47 PM #

    Good discussion.

    I would say that if you will have multiple languages, it is ideal to have a primary language and translate from that. Where you may only have a few of a different language, I have seen it to be effective for them to have a personal translator. This could be distracting if people in the primary language group are not attuned to the need, but usually quiet murmurings of translation in the congregation are not too bad. I have seen this happen with small congregations of English-Spanish as well as English-Afrikaans-Arabic worshipers.

    I have seen multiple languages sung simultaneously and work well when the songs are already known. When the congregation needs to be taught the songs, it is probably best to either teach them separately or suffer songs that repeat in each language multiplying the time to sing by each language. For significant percentages of language groups, this would necessitate either multiple regular services or a paradigm shift for programmatic worship. Ideally those not of the primary language would want to learn the primary language over time to eventually integrate.

    Something that can be used occasionally for worship is where songs that are already known, that different worship leaders of different languages take the lead in their language for a verse and only the people of that language sing that verse. Especially with small groups where people don’t do this often, the spiritual effect can be tremendous as we observe each other, who are a little bit different, worship with zeal in a language with which we are each familiar.

    For special music offered, written translations (projected or passed out, given available technology) are necessary. Ideally, musical teams or individual musicians may want to learn to sing in each language. I’ve done this occasionally and it works well.

    • Bob Kauflin March 19, 2009 at 2:10 PM #

      Jim, thanks for the very helpful thoughts.

  8. Jim Brown March 21, 2009 at 1:15 PM #

    I have been a member of the praise band at a Spanish church for five years but I do not speak Spanish. When I joined I knew nothing about Spanish, now I know what most of the lyrics mean and can catch a few spoken words but not enough to understand a conversation. We have translation via wireless headsets and a mix of translators, some very good while others are beginners doing their best.

    While this is OK for a visitor, I don’t believe it works for a regular church member. Even the best translation is always a sentence behind and when the congregation reacts with applause or saying hallelujah it becomes difficult to hear the headset. This is why I have always sought outside resources such as Truth For Life CDs, fellowship with other English speakers, visiting with small groups from other churches and most recently various blogs.

    The problem I see is not with singing songs as it is easy enough to learn what the lyrics mean and even I can sing in Spanish but the problem is in studying the Bible. It is important during the sermon (Bible study) that the translator has a full understanding of what is being said and re-preaches it in the other language. In reality this is not possible because the preacher would have spent a great deal of time preparing the message and getting the words just right and the translator has to do this spontaneously. There is a great deal lost in translation therefore, my recommendation is for separate services whenever there is significant number of members who don’t understand the main language. In my case, I am one of three regular members who don’t understand Spanish (the three of us all have bilingual spouses) so a separate service would not be practical.

    The idea of having the message preached in both languages is alright for special events but is distracting as it slows down the natural flow of the message. Of course, it is better to worship with translations if it is not possible to have separate services.

  9. steven April 1, 2009 at 4:45 AM #

    Please…can someone let me know if there are websites offering both English and Mandarin/Chinese lyrics for praise and worship songs. I need to download them quite immediately,

  10. Pablo Gutierrez April 23, 2009 at 11:08 AM #

    Hi Bob,
    I enjoyed reading your experience in India. I’ll be attending the Worship God conference in August for the first time and am really looking forward to it!

    I actually lead worship in English and Spanish on Sunday afternoons in Fairfax, VA. Most of our members are homeless or very poor; sometimes the language switch can disengage some, but you can certainly sense the presence of the Lord.

  11. FRANCISCA WANJA August 3, 2009 at 11:18 AM #

    PLEASE CAN I GET ZULU WORSHIP SONGS BOTH IN ZULU AND ENGLISH.HOW CAN YOU ASSIST ONE WHO WANT TO LEARN ZULU LANGUAGE?THANK YOU

  12. Jakes Olivier December 16, 2009 at 6:12 AM #

    Hi Francisca. Contact me on jakesolivier[at]gmail[dot]com and i’ll be glad to assist. We sing Zulu and English songs each week because we’re based in Zululand, South Africa.

  13. Raudel January 26, 2010 at 10:11 AM #

    Josue and Sergio,
    Can you guys send me the translated songs u already have? My email is rhernandez@summitrdu.com

    Thanks so much!

    Raudel

  14. Duncan K. K. Kagika February 14, 2010 at 4:07 AM #

    As President Obama, apparently says that he wants everyone to learn a foreign language, a neutral language which is commonly used in that particular Church should be adopted with songs here and there ín the other languages now and them to show that they are, the other language-speakers, being considered in praising the Wholy One God in tha congegation..

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